The Gristle

The Tyranny of One
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THE TYRANNY OF ONE: Bellingham City Council held a special meeting this week to study and receive comments on proposals that will appear on the countywide November ballot. As several proposals seek to curtail the participation of city residents and city taxpayers in future county elections, Council’s interest in the interlocking mechanisms of these proposals is appropriate.

Proposition 1 seeks to exploit a mathematical problem of apportioning the county population across three districts: It can’t be done without carving the population center of Bellingham into thirds. Prop 1—district-only voting—seeks then to wall off those thirds and isolate them from one another. But while Prop 1 received the bulk of the evening’s attention, Propositions 2 and 3 are more diabolical in construction: If voters seek to explore the contents of DO-3, Props 2 and 3 are designed to forever lock the doors behind voters, making return impossible. Sampled DO-3 and didn’t like the flavor? Tough.

County Council is authorized under Article XI of the state Constitution to place matters on the county ballot for voters to consider. Those matters can be of Council’s design and choosing, or brought to them by citizen initiatives. They are, in fact, the only entity authorized with this power under the constitution. Props 2 and 3 seek to wreck this power of County Council to respond to the public. Common ­sense would therefore suggest that the propositions are flat-out unconstitutional and unlawful—and they would be, except for the sly insertion of a fictional patina that (like some cartoonish coupon that is only valid on the days it is void) appears to grant a pathway to Council’s powers under Article XI, only through the unanimous consent of some future council (now partitioned and unresponsive to one another by DO-3). Props 2 and 3 are pernicious and deeply offensive.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that a particular cohort, the tea party, so concerned about tyranny would impose it as a solution at all levels?

In fact, several proposals are on the ballot that would transform legislative action from a simple majority to ultra-supermajority to enact. While the stated aim is to create broader-based support for things like tax increases, the opposite is the more likely outcome: One recalcitrant jackass, beholden to none, can thwart the ideas and ambitions of thousands, the very definition of tyranny.

Of course, it isn’t so strange. For years, the controlling notion was to reduce the size of government by starving it of revenues. Turns out that does not work—governments can run deficits; and, in any case, all but a minuscule portion of their activities is statutorily mandated and non-discretionary, can’t be cut. After decades of trying, all we have to show for the effort are collapsed bridges, rotten roads, bankrupt schools and businesses fleeing to other places less idiotic in support of public infrastructure. So another controlling notion was required. Presto, the requirement for supermajority to achieve anything. Such a requirement reduces the capacity of the public sector to respond only to exigent emergency, and only to a very narrow list of priorities in the clutches of tyrants.

One such initiative is Tim Eyman’s I-1366, which would pry $8 billion out of state sales tax revenue in order to blackmail the Legislature into writing supermajority requirements into the state Constitution. Eyman’s earlier ballot mischief was thrown on to the rubbish heap by the state Supreme Court, which found that if you want to change the way the state operates, you must change the Constitution. Eyman proposes to suffocate the Legislature until they are compelled to do so.

Commenting on I-1366, a King County Superior Court judge found “the threat of a large reduction in the sales tax (and large reduction in services to Washingtonians) to force legislators to engage in the physical act of ‘proposing’ the constitutional amendment for the ballot, notwithstanding that some will be forced to do so against their will and without any changes to the amendment. The purpose of the initiative is not to legislate, but to invoke the constitutional amendment process. Sponsors characterize the legislators’ proposal as a ‘choice,’ but there is no choice here.”

This is what tyranny looks like.

Also on the ballot are Props 2 and 3 that would increase the burden on the County Council to propose changes to the county charter (they may only propose, voters decide) from the current supermajority requirement (5-2) to an ultra-supermajority requirement of unanimous decree (7-0). Council should have struck down this tea party initiative as malevolent nonsense, but declined to do so and passed its rot along to voters.

Some things, like changes to governing documents, should require broad consensus. We already have it. It takes five Council votes to propose changes. The amendment would require seven votes.

Commenting on the wisdom of Props 2 and 3, retiring Council member Pete Kremen struggled.

“The unanimous requirement, it’s un-American,” he said. “You would be giving one part-time County Council member more power than the other six County Council members and the County Executive. The County Executive can only veto ordinances, but that veto can always be overridden. But you’re giving one County Council member supreme veto power. That’s wrong. That’s why you have seven members.

“You’d give one person on Council totalitarian power over the legislative branch and the executive branch, all rolled into one. It’s unheard of, it’s unprecedented, it’s just bad policy,” he said.

This is what tyranny looks like.

Of course, the state Supreme Court has already commented on the unsuitability of supermajority requirements on a functional democracy. Striking down one of Eyman’s earlier impositions of a supermajority requirement, the majority observed:

“The language and history of the Constitution evince a principle favoring a simple majority vote for legislation,” the court observed. “Washington’s government was founded as a representative democracy based on simple majority rule.

“More importantly, the framers were particularly concerned with a tyranny of the minority. This preference for simple majority rule is evident from the very language of the Constitution, which required only a simple majority vote for ordinary legislation and reserved a supermajority vote for special circumstances. The seven supermajority requirements in the original constitution were all relegated to special circumstances, not the passage of ordinary legislation. These circumstances included expelling a member of the legislature or overriding a veto. Thus, the framers were aware of the significance that a supermajority vote requirement entailed and consciously limited it.” Had they believed such a requirement was important, the framers could have enabled language to permit it; they did not, the court argued.

A supermajority requirement for ordinary legislation alters our system of government, the court argued. If carried to its logical conclusion, justices noted, all legislation could be conditioned on a supermajority vote.

“In other words,” justices continued in their 2013 followup to their McCleary ruling on funding public education, “particular bills must receive 90 percent approval rather than just a two-thirds approval, thus essentially ensuring that those types of bills would never pass. Such a result is antithetical to the notion of a functioning government and should be rejected as such.”

Within these ballot proposals is a seething hatred of the very form of government that flag-waving proponents profess to love. Strange, isn’t it?

This is what tyranny looks like.

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